Sports

Into the spotlight

Jesse Morgan has settled in after moving back home.

With Shaquille Harrison and his Tulsa teammates changing the game off the fastbreak and on the scoreboard, Jesse Morgan keeps plugging away.

His 3-point attempts in this contest nearly match those from the rest of his team combined, but Temple’s senior guard is only doing what he does best, and he’s doing it on the two-year anniversary of the anterior cruciate ligament tear in his right knee that set off his extended time away from regulation basketball.

Eighteen seconds and a four-point margin separate the Golden Hurricane from completing a double-digit comeback victory, though, but not before the hometown kid representing the team for which he grew up cheering gave his long-range jump shot another chance, and then another. With the clock’s few remaining ticks running off it, junior guard Rashad Smith secured Morgan’s final heave with three seconds left to play and covered up as the buzzer announced Tulsa’s 63-56 victory on Jan. 10.

Morgan’s last two 3-point shots went the way of each of his previous attempts that afternoon. Not much had been different in his approach – the very same that had helped him rip off four straight performances of 15 points or more in his first four games with the Owls, and he did it in his first regulation action in nearly two years.

After all, Morgan isn’t shy on the floor. Coach Fran Dunphy said as much after his guard had netted 16 points in his first game of eligibility this season in a victory against Delaware on Dec. 18, 2014.

After nine of his first 10 games, Morgan topped his group in shooting attempts. He ranks fourth among his teammates with 131 shooting attempts – 83 behind junior Quenton DeCosey for the team lead – having played in half as many games.

“When he’s good, he’s a pleasure to watch,” Dunphy said. “He has had some moments of inconsistency, and that’s what he has to work on every single day, every single game.”

It’s been nearly six weeks since Morgan hit the floor firing at Delaware’s Bob Carpenter Center, and he’s had his moments since.

Once he and junior Devin Coleman, a Clemson transfer and Philadelphia native, joined Temple’s rotation that day in Newark, the Owls pulled off a six-game winning streak that included defeats of then-No. 10 Kansas and defending national-champion Connecticut.

Morgan has totaled 14 points or more in eight of his 10 games thus far. The Owls are 1-1 in his single-digit outings – the loss to Tulsa and a win against Central Florida in which he netted five points on Jan. 4. While having played a shorter slate of games compared to his teammates, Morgan’s 13.5 points per game tops the team’s scorers, just edging DeCosey’s 13.4 ppg.

Yet, records and numbers aside, the 6-foot-5 jump shooter who grew up four blocks away from the Liacouras Center has brought a new dynamic with him to his neighborhood team.

“He can knock down shots,” senior guard Will Cummings said. “That’s what we need him to do. Knock down shots and stretch defense. Just keep the defense honest … and he likes to defend, too. All of his different aspects help the team.”

While Morgan said he’s enjoying the ride in his last semester of college basketball, his journey here was long and, at times, tumultuous.

He spent his early childhood living on 19th and Montgomery streets watching his father play Sunday-morning pick-up ball at parks like the Amos Playground, which sits behind Geasey Field off 16th and Berks streets. He couldn’t join in, but he was learning from his dad at a young age.

“I always wanted to play, but I was too young,” Morgan said. “I used to watch him for a little bit and then go and play on the swings.”

He started playing organized basketball at the Martin Luther King Center on 21st Street and Cecil B. Moore Avenue by age 5, and played in numerous organized leagues through his high-school career, in which he spent three years at Prep Charter High School before spending his senior year at Olney High School. He spent a brief period with South Kent Prep in Connecticut before moving on the collegiate level in the winter of the 2009-10 season.

While Morgan is a Philadelphian to the core, his ultimate college decision – one that brought him to the University of Massachusetts, Temple’s former Atlantic-10 rival – hinged on a desire to move away for the time being.

“My college choice – it was different,” Morgan said. “I wanted to stay home, but I also knew I wasn’t mature enough to stay home and deal with distractions, friends and things like that. I wanted to get away and I wanted to go to a big-name college.”

“I decided to go to UMass and I ended up back home anyway, so I probably should’ve just taken that chance and stayed home and matured.”

He declined to delve more into his three-year tenure at Massachusetts, one in which he averaged 9.7 ppg in 63 contests before suffering his ACL tear as a junior. He enrolled in classes at Temple that summer, and transferred to the university with one remaining semester of eligibility.

He was declared ineligible for the 2013-14 season in a July 2013 meeting with the NCAA, and was forced to sit out until that mid-December game at Delaware, as he chose this past November to play out his eligibility this spring.

Morgan and another Philadelphia transfer playing his first season with the Owls – junior and former University of Texas forward Jaylen Bond – have combined with the likes of DeCosey, Cummings and company to help bump Temple’s 9-22 showing last season to a 13-7 campaign through 20 games in 2014-15, including a 4-3 record to date in the American Athletic Conference.

“I honestly didn’t know Jaylen was coming until the second or third week I was in summer [classes],” Morgan said. “So then I was like, ‘Oh, OK. This might be fun.’ I had always heard about Jaylen. … That Philly toughness and to have another guy push you like he does is a great feeling.”

Morgan’s collegiate journey is nearing its end.

He’ll celebrate his 24th birthday on March 14, the date of the conference tournament semifinal round in Hartford, Connecticut. Whether Morgan and the Owls will still be competing that day remains to be seen.

However, Morgan’s time as a student-athlete isn’t yet over, and he’s just fine with that.

“My journey, it was different, man,” he said. “Just the experiences that I faced and the adversity that I faced, I don’t think I’d change anything. I’ve grown, I’ve matured and I look at things differently. Those times helped me become who I am today, and I’m satisfied with that.”

Andrew Parent can be reached at andrew.parent@temple.edu, 215.204. 9537 or on Twitter @Andrew_Parent23

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